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Whirlpool of Fame

The Chattooga, 34 years after Deliverance

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In 1970 a then little-known Southern poet named James Dickey shocked American audiences with his debut novel about four Atlanta suburbanites whose weekend canoe trip down the fictitious Cahulawassee River devolved into a horrific tale of male-on-male rape, death and ultimately redemption.

Not long after, director John Boorman adapted Deliverance into a film of the same name, spending months along the Chattooga River, transforming the rural region into the set for his modern day Heart of Darkness tale that has since become an icon in American filmmaking.

Now, three decades later, Spartanburg, SC, writer John Lane sets out to explore the impact the novel and subsequent movie had on the river and its residents, many of whom appeared in the movie, in his latest book Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River.

But Lane's 210-page book is far more than a companion to Dickey's classic novel or Boorman's film. Starting near Chattooga's source, Lane, an avid kayaker, floats south from North Carolina to Georgia. Along the way, he recounts stories of his own experiences on the river with friends, family and students from Wofford College, where he teaches English.

Still, echoes of the famous novel and movie often pop up unexpectedly, like boulders in the river. In one of the book's more haunting chapters, Lane tracks down the movie's famous banjo boy, whose real name we learn is Billy Redden. Redden, now middle-aged and missing a few more teeth, works the 6am-2pm shift washing dishes at the Huddle House in Clayton, GA, before moving on to a second job at a barbecue pit called Oinkers. During a brief conversation between shifts, Redden recounts being pulled out of school in the fourth grade to film the famous scene where he plays banjo opposite actor Ronny Cox.

The gap-toothed 11-year-old didn't actually know how to play the banjo, so he wore a special shirt that allowed someone else's hands to play for him. All that ultimately came of the experience, Redden tells Lane, is the occasional $20 royalty check that drifts in with the bills -- or the curious journalist who shows up, looking to dig up Deliverance lore -- something many in this small town seem anxious to forget.

"It's been 30 years since the movie crew left town. Despite Billy's brief flare of fame, his life is just as much on the edge as the afflicted boy he played in Deliverance," Lane writes. "Billy Redden, the dishwasher, is the myth blurred a little too much by reality."

While the book skims the surface of Dickey's and Boorman's brutal world, Lane, a poet and essayist, is at his strongest when writing about his own observations of the river and the people who live along its banks. Between kayaking trips, he interviews and writes of families who have lived for generations along the Chattooga as well as the growing struggle between environmentalists who want to protect the river and developers looking to cash in on its scenic beauty.

In one chapter, Lane recounts the heated battle that followed the drowning death of a hiker whose body ended up trapped beneath the rapids. The only way to get the body out was to temporarily divert the river. For six weeks environmentalists and rescuers squared off on how best to retrieve the drowned woman -- including threats by former US Sen. Strom Thurmond -- before the body began to break apart and wash bit-by-bit downstream. That story serves as a metaphor for the growing pains of a once obscure river now increasingly threatened by the more than one million tourists, hikers and rafters who have visited in the three decades since the book and movie came out.

Lane, who is also the author of the collection of nature essays Waist Deep in Black Water (2002) and The Dead Father Poems (2000) about his father's suicide, has written a book that will appeal to any fan of Dickey's novel or Boorman's film. Despite using Deliverance's cultural hook, readers will discover -- through Lane's vivid descriptions, smooth prose and obvious passion for the environment and the Chattooga -- that the author has charted a course all his own, one where the wild and scenic river is one of the strongest characters.

John Lane will read from and sign copies of Chattooga at Park Road Books, Friday, April 16, beginning at 7pm.

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